Nov 18th, 2012

City Conversations Part 1 – Knowing God

By Nick Robison

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in coffee shops, and in my quest to find the best Seattle has to offer, I’ve been spending a lot of time on buses. When I’m out and about I usually go without headphones, I like to listen to the people around me and be available in case someone needs some directions or has a question. Through this I’ve been privy to some very interesting conversations and a few have raised some interesting issues that deserve at least a passing response.

Tonight, while waiting an extra 15 minutes for the 49 bus from Capitol Hill I overhead most of a conversation between two young gentlemen regarding religion and spirituality in which the following statements were uttered:

  • ‘I hate when people use religion as something solely self-serving and only as a means to their own ends’
  • ‘I think religion is simply people trying to define the same force in terms that make sense and are relevant to themselves…. but only as long as it’s positive’

I hear this argument pretty regularly and I absolutely agree with the first one point, but the second, not so much. As I was listening and on the following bus ride a few specific points came up that I thought needed to be fleshed out:

  1. Isn’t defining spirituality on our own terms the ultimate form of self-service? Imagine, the ability to define the greatest force in the universe in whichever terms seem most convenient or applicable to yourself! Sounds like the plot to a new sci-fi show. Now of course, no normal person would ever attempt to use such a great power in nefarious methods, and indeed, most spiritual seekers are great people with a desire for good things, not evil. But history has shown that making god subject to the whims and emotions of man at best creates the society vilified by Tolstoy, and at worst the societies filling the pages of history textbooks (Constantine, the Crusades, the Caliphate, the lords’ resistance army, etc), power corrupts and the power to define the spiritual world may be the most corruptive of all. And if god becomes something unique to each person and in each situation, we lose the ability to relate to each other on truly important levels, which leads to point 2.
  2. If religion, or god, is something that only speaks in the positive then it’s completely stripped of its force as a moral compass. This isn’t really a new concept, traditionally gods have a tendency to start demanding things and placing pesky limits on what we can and cannot do. The Greeks struggled greatly with this issue, especially since their gods tended to be quite capricious and show favorites. Plato tried hard to get rid of them, but found them to be an unfortunate necessary in building any sort of ordered society. Even Rousseau, the great champion of equality and humanism, found himself stuck on the concept of natural law and order, finally admitting that the very idea of morality was extrinsic to our own world and reality. However, we has humans have done a marvelous job attempting to assert our independence from any sort of higher power and to do so we’ve worked to label spirituality, a thoroughly ancient and seemingly obsolete notion, as something that can only be affirming, never accusing, and thus we suddenly find ourselves staring into the eyes of Nietzsche’s Madman.
  3. If we try and combine all religious views as simply many sides of the same coin, then we eventually get into the realm of ‘semantic reconciliation’ trying to piece together all the things the various divinities say about themselves and come out with a coherent picture. The problem is, divinities tend to make fairly arrogant statements about themselves. For example, the God of the Bible has some fairly distinct statements about being the only deity on the block (Exodus 20:2, Isaiah 42:8, John 14:6, the entirety of the Creation story). Thus we come to the points of having to choose whether to accept these statements as they appear,  or pick and choose what parts of each god we like, which leads us into the next problem.
  4. The God of The Bible seems to be pretty unambiguous about who he is and where he comes from, as seen in Exodus 3. When asked his name the Lord respondes ‘I AM WHO I AM’, or directly translated from the Hebrew (the verb being Hayah) ‘I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE’. This self referential statement is annoyingly inconsistent with reality in that it states that the definition of God is God, an ontological contradiction that has been discussed ad nauseum in other places. Except for one thing, God is by definition infinite, meaning there is no beginning or end (this is not the proper medium for a fully discusion of actual infinities so you’ll just have to trust me), so there is no ‘ontologically prior’ being, God exists by the nature of who he is, not out of dependence of some higher order or outside necessity. To bring this back down to earth (pun intended), God exists outside our own perceptions, we can call him whatever we want, assign to him any number of attributes, but that doesn’t affect his person in the slightest. Naming is a form of creation but it’s at best the creation of an abstraction, not an actual entity. So, if we choose to think of God in a way that is contradictory to his own claims that what we have is not in fact God, but a fiction, a fignment of our imagination, which when viewed in the light of Rescher’s hierarchy of thought, means it could never actually be God.

In some ways it’s surprising that this idea keeps surfacing in conversation, even in conversation amongst extremely intelligent people. I also wonder how people square a changing god with the idea of creation, what we see around us is ordered and uniform with the underlying systems showing a high level of orchestration and uniformity (the laws of gravity are the same in Tokyo and Calgary) and since nearly every religion claims some sort of creation mythology (even the Flying Spaghetti Monster) it would seem that at some point the spiritual forces were aligned and consistent, but since then have become capricious (maybe it’s a sign of them getting old?). But finally this type of thinking is fundamentally flawed in that it places us front and center, it makes religion and the spiritual world something that we control, that we interact with on our terms, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Religion isn’t about us but about God, about his mercy, about his saving power, about his glory.

I think it’s really sad that people have arrived at this point by thinking either a) the spiritual forces are so impersonal and remote that I must use whatever methods I can to make them into something I can relate to, or b) religion has been twisted into so many shapes and forms that can’t let it dictate my way of life less I become twisted as well. When I hear people talking I hear the searching in their voice, the desire to know the truth but a disparity that they feel so far from it.

Fortunately, we serve a God who desires to be known, a God who says ‘taste and see’, a God who does not change like shifting shadows. We may not be able to have God on our own terms, but it may yet turn out that the terms he’s set are the best in the long run.